It was June of 1969. I was an 11½ year old visually impaired girl leaving home for the first time to attend Jewish overnight camp. I boarded the train to Wisconsin consumed with mixed emotions: already a little homesick and anxious, but also excited. I was excited about the friends coming from my Jewish day school, and the new friends I hope to meet. At that moment, I was just like them - leaving home to spend three fun-filled weeks at summer camp.
It was a disaster.
This was two decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the camp had never had a camper with a disability before. To be fair, I don't know if they even knew I had problems with my vision, as I didn't yet identify as a person with a disability.
But I didn't know how or even if I could or should ask for help. I wanted to be just like everyone else, able to do what the other campers did joyfully, which could have been the case had I had support. But there I was - missing out on the fun, lonely, and homesick.
That was my last camp experience. For me camp brought memories of being a girl who had no voice, in a place where an untrained and uninformed staff had no experience or protocols in place to help a child with disabilities.
Fifty years later - as we celebrate Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month this month - I have found my voice and embraced my identity as a blind woman. I am a leader in my community, which includes taking a leadership role on the board of Keshet. Keshet's goal is to ensure the inclusion of individuals with disabilities in all aspects of community: education, recreation, employment, and housing. Keshet has been providing inclusive camping for almost 30 years. Through Keshet, I have been introduced to the organization's partnership with JCC Camp Chi.
Keshet first began supporting day camps, and then when the campers they supported came of age to attend overnight camp, they knew they had to provide an overnight camp experience. They found a natural partner in JCC Camp Chi, who already worked with Keshet in their day camps. Keshet knew that camp is a place that all children can feel part of a larger and inclusive community.
Keshet knew that they had the expertise to make Camp Chi an inclusive community. Camp Chi knows camping and Keshet knows inclusion… As part of their partnership, a Keshet staff member became Camp Chi's first Inclusion Coordinator. This allowed for campers with Keshet support, and any campers needing support, to be successful at camp. This was achieved by putting a staffing structure in place, training all staff, and creating a culture of belonging for all.
If you had told me 50 years ago that there would be a camp where campers with disabilities were embraced, where belonging and not just being there was the goal, where staff was trained, where support was available and campers of all abilities could participate in all aspects of camp life including becoming counselors, I would have told you that was an unrealistic utopia.
But inclusion at Camp Chi is more than just attendance, and it's more than having accessible grounds. It is about full participation, embracing the ideal that an inclusive camp reflects Jewish values while benefitting all campers - disabled and able bodied alike. It is about offering support to ensure the camp experience feels like home for all campers. This ideal is more than inclusion; it's about belonging.
Through the partnership of Keshet and Camp Chi, campers of all abilities find a summer "home" where they are not just welcome; they are embraced and truly belong.
JCC Chicago and Keshet are partners with the Jewish United Fund in serving our community.
Michelle Friedman currently serves as the vice chair of the board of Keshet and on Keshet's board of governance and development committees. She is also the development chair of the Institute for Therapy Through the Arts and a member of ADA 25 Advancing Leadership.